City Discusses Putting Student Housing Proposal on Ballot

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COLUMBIA - At its meeting Monday, the Columbia City Council will address the possibility of holding a special election in November to let voters decide on portions of a proposal by Opus Development to build a student housing complex downtown, on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. The debate lies in what the ballot would say.

Council will not hear public discussion or vote on the matter until a later date. Monday's meeting is simply preliminary. 

The special election would let voters decide whether to repeal an ordinance which authorized the city manager to execute a development agreement with Opus. First Ward Council Member Ginny Chadwick said the ordinance mandates Opus give an additional $500,000 to put toward infrastructure and transit.

"If the council votes no on repeal, then it goes to the voters with the opportunity for all the voters in Columbia to decide whether to repeal the ordinance," said Jeremy Root, a spokesperson for the repeal effort.

If council votes to approve the repeal effort, the ordinance would be repealed and there wouldn't be a special election.

"If we repeal that ordinance, Opus still will receive a building permit, and the project will move forward. Just the city will not receive the additional funding [from Opus]," Chadwick said. 

Root said he believes the development can be stopped. 

"We believe the city has authority and discretion to decide whether to authorize building permits for projects where we don't have infrastructure capacity," Root said. 

But Chadwick said the Opus Development is a done deal regardless of the petitions, and the 256-bedroom complex will continue to be built.

"Their plan is to delay the project as long as possible in hopes that Opus will go away, but everybody knows that the project conforms the C-2 zoning that it falls within," Chadwick said.

"Zoning and infrastructure are not related topics," Root said. "Because a project has proper zoning for the use does not mean our infrastructure is capable of supporting the use." 

Root said he thinks council is operating under misinformation.

"I think they've made some pretty serious misjudgements in this process, and I also think that they are receiving bad information from city staff - from the city manager, from the deputy city manager and at times from the city attorney," Root said. "Those people should not be misleading or lying to our council."

Root said he thinks Columbia residents as a whole are against the development.  

"We believe the majority of them don't like the idea of having sewage in their streets and streams flowing from student housing complexes in the middle of our downtown," Root said.  

Chadwick said petitioners spoke in favor of a similar project that passed the very same day.

"If they think that infrastructure wasn't enough, why did they not focus on repealing both projects that flow into the exact same sewer system?" Chadwick said. 

As for the people who signed the petition against the Opus Development, Chadwick said, "they were told that their sewer rates would increase if they didn't sign the petition, and they were told there was improper building downtown, yet Opus conforms to all of the current zoning."

If council rejects the repeal and voters chose to vote on the issue, Chadwick said the Opus Development plans will be put on hold until after the election.